President Freeman, faculty, graduates, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for honoring me with Albany State University’s International Citizen of the Year award. It is truly a privilege to be part of this commencement ceremony. As I look around this room, I cannot help but be moved by the moment.
I see beaming parents, proud relatives and friends. Having benefited greatly from my parents support and sacrifice, I want to applaud you for all of your support for these graduating students over the past four years.
Many of you were there on the first day of elementary school to the last day of high school, helping with homework, packing lunches and attending parent-teachers conferences.
You truly deserve a round of applause. Seated before me, front and center, I see all of the graduates of Albany State University – the class of spring 2010. All your hard work has paid off.
Years of hard work have brought you to this moment, this place and this time. Your time is now. Each of you has traveled your own road to get here, but you are here together on the threshold of your future.
I see over three hundred graduates. I see the Class of Spring 2010.
Despite the challenges that await you in an uncertain world, you are brimming with confidence, filled with unbridled optimism and hope, and ready for the infinite possibilities that await you.
What I see in you, what your parents, relatives and friends see in you is the future of this nation and the world. With the Albany State University education you received you can compete anywhere.
We believe in you because you believe yourselves. It is your self confidence, an unshakeable belief in yourselves that what will carry you through moments of doubt, when the path before you seems blocked, when you believe the river runs too deep to cross.
Graduates, you have an opportunity to create the change that you seek, to create your own arc of history and to build on the rich tradition of this university and the lofty ideals and achievements of leaders, such as Dr. Joseph Winthrop Holley, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as prominent civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height, and whom President Obama hailed at her funeral this past Thursday.
When you look at the arc of history created by these leaders, it is similar, laden with markers of hope, progress and change -- held together by two parallel and unbreakable forces -- peace and justice.
The arc of history for these great leaders, while individual, is connected to a universal arc -- one filled by centuries of struggle and sacrifice so that you could have the opportunity you have today.
Given this opportunity – you need decide -- individually and collectively -- how will I make my mark on this world, how will my actions impact the arc of history? What will the arc of my life look like?
Will it be an arc of justice, peace and freedom or will it be an arc that reflects a lifetime commitment to education or civic service? Will your arc project locally or will it be global -- transcending borders in a “flat” world?
Over a hundred years ago Dr. Joseph Holley understood intuitively how he would contribute to the arc of history. His legacy would be an arc of education.
In his twenties, shortly after graduating from Lincoln University, with $2,600 in contributions, motivated and inspired by leading luminaries and advocates for education of his time, Dr. Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. Holley moved to Albany and opened -- the Albany Bible and Manual Training Institute.
As you know, Dr. Holley, was deeply moved by the description of the horrific living conditions and socio-economic repression experienced by southern blacks at the time. He understood, as did, George Washington Carver that, “Education was the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
Little did Dr. Holley know at that time that the arc of education he sought to create – which guided his life-time of work, would firmly take hold in Southwest Georgia and that the Albany Bible and Manual Training Institute would grow from a nascent institution, to a nationally recognized university -- shaping the lives of millions of people in Albany, Georgia, the United States around the globe.
From a graduating class of 20 in 1909 to over 600 graduates in 2010 – Dr. Holley’s arc of Education continues to grow – I see this arc living and breathing in front of me in each of you.
When I look at you, I cannot help but think of the arc of history created by two of the most important 20th century civil rights leaders Dr. Dorothy Height and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who had an enormous impact on Albany State University and all of you.
I want to speak about Dr. Height who recently passed away. I know all of you join me in mourning the loss of the founding matriarch of the civil rights movement or as President Obama called her the “godmother of the civil rights movement and hero to so many Americans.”
I have a vivid memory of Dr. Height that I want to share with you. In Spring 2005, I was attending an annual dinner, hosted by the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies in Washington, one of our nation's premier think tanks on public policy issues of concern to African Americans.
I scanned the room to see who was at the event, and my line of sight focused on three distinct figures in front of me, though each was a distance apart from the other -- they lined up perfectly. Across the room was Dr. Height, of course recognizable with a beautiful hat – her trademark style, near her sat the distinguished former Congressman, now Mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums, and beyond him, further away, in the foreground, was the newly minted Junior Senator from Illinois --Barack Obama.
At the time, I was struck, by the moment, by the great arc of history before me. How each of these leading political figures and activists, from different generations was interconnected – woven together by an unbreakable bond – by the arc of history.
It was not lost on me, looking at then Senator Obama and Congressman Dellums, both with enormous star power on their own, that they had benefited greatly from the strength, courage and conviction of this incredible woman, Dr. Dorothy Height.
Seeing then Senator Obama greet Dr. Height and Congressman Dellums, I could see the passing of the baton of leadership, the baton of history, the baton of social progressive change from Dr. Height to Congressman Dellums to Senator Barack Obama, who only three years later became the first African-American President of the United States.
Looking back at that event, at those three figures, I truly knew what Dr. King meant when he said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
Whether you know or not -- the arc of history, the arc of justice and freedom, created and nurtured by Dr. Dorothy Height passed on from one generation to another, since the 1930s, had an impact on everyone single person in this room.
Class of 2010, as you think about your own future, about the arc of history you will create, I want you to reflect on the legacy of Dorothy Height and her commitment to a life of service. I want you to reflect on this quote by Dr. Height who said, “Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his or her goals.”
From her determined struggle as a college student – unable to enroll in Barnard College based on an unwritten limit of “two Negro Students” a year -- to an six decades-long role as a civil rights leader, actively lobbying Eleanor Roosevelt and Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama on voting rights, women’s rights, school desegregation and employment rights, Dorothy Height personified courage and determination as she fought for equality and freedom for women and people of color.
As Congressman John Lewis said, “long before some of the younger activists in the movement came to the forefront, like Dr. King and I, Dorothy Height was out there educating and empowering woman, children and families in the South.”
One of the most remarkable things about Dorothy Height was her selfless commitment to a life of service and the betterment of others.
Despite all of the awards, special recognition including, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, her personal relationships with several American Presidents, Eleanor Roosevelt and leading civil rights figures such as Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis, Dorothy Height’s life’s purpose was to simply help others.
In her recently completed book, Living with Purpose, Dr. Height points out that when you help others you help yourself. What I admire the most about Dr. Height is she never asked what was in it for me – for her the love of service was enough of a reward. She said, “It is hard for some to understand that you do things that are helpful to others that you are also helping yourself.”
Dr. Height had an incredible influence on my life arc. As did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose leadership and influence, like that of Dr. Height, transformed history and the arc of the world we live in today.
It was not lost on me as a student at Pomona College in California, and then at the University of Oxford, that when Dr. King spoke about justice and peace in the United States -- he was not only speaking to the American people but to a world audience.
When Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice -- he wasn’t just referring to the civil rights struggle or morality in America, he was also speaking about the universal pursuit of freedom and the advancement of human rights, dignity and security.
It was Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Prize lecture in which he spoke passionately about the pursuit of international peace and justice, which served as a catalyst as I pursued a career in public service and eventually led me to my position today as Assistant Secretary of State.
As a student, searching for my own path, I determined early on that I wanted to be part of the arc of global peace and justice that has been the bedrock of our nation’s foreign policy over the last century – from President Theodore Roosevelt who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, for leading negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War to President Woodrow Wilson’s effort to form the League of Nations to Eleanor Roosevelt’s leading role in the creation of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Dr. King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and in a new century President’s Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.
President Obama’s call for a new era of engagement is a continuation of the arc of history whose trajectory was directed, shaped and spurred on by 20th century leaders including, Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi and others who chose to pursue peace, dignity, justice and hope in the face of violence, hatred and fear. We have all been the beneficiaries of their moral and physical courage
As the world grows smaller in this new era of engagement, we cannot talk solely about addressing freedom from fear without seeking solutions to freedom from want.
President Obama was right when he said, “the absence of hope can rot a society from within.” That is why this Administration is focused on 21st century solutions to address human development and human security needs.
Today the United States is working, with the United Nations and international partners, to eradicate global hunger insecurity and poverty and taking critical steps to meet worldwide goals to provide healthcare, education, sanitation and shelter to those people in need – giving hope to many where it does not exist.
In his Nobel Lecture last December, President Obama echoing Dr. King said, “our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.” Class of 2010 -- President Obama was speaking directly to you. Actions do matter whether they are big or small, local or global.
Actions matter, as we address the common global challenges confronting humankind including, climate change, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the global financial crisis, poverty, and protection of human rights.
Actions matter, as we try to help millions of families around the world, living in or near conflict zones seek peace and security for their children and future generations.
Actions matter, when local peanut farmers in Georgia band together to provide food aid to hungry Haitians devastated by a catastrophic earthquake.
Actions matter, when the President of the United States holds an historic summit with 49 leaders in April, and they agree to take effective measures to secure nuclear material, and to prevent nuclear smuggling and terrorism.
Class of 2010, will the trajectory of your arc be one of action and enlightened self-interest, like that of Dr. Betty Height and Eleanor Roosevelt, who selflessly answered the call of their day, organized and built lasting institutions of peace, and movements for justice, that forever changed our nation and the world we live in?
In the global community we live in today, collective action matters, it matters because humankind needs each other more than ever.
The arc of global responsibility has grown exponentially over the past decade – but so has the price of inaction and indifference.
The United States or any nation for that matter alone -- cannot stop deadly flu viruses from crossing the world or prevent genocide and mass atrocities from occurring in places such as Darfur or Rwanda. We need a common approach to common threats and universal solutions to universal problems.
In his speech before the United Nations last September, President Obama spoke about the challenges facing the world we live in today; he said “more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared. The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or they can tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child -- anywhere -- can enrich our world, or impoverish it.”
During his speech the President spoke about a “common future,” a “new era of engagement based on “mutual interest” and “mutual respect.” He emphasized the need for persistent action saying that the “future will be forged by deeds and simply not words.”
So now that we have identified some of the shared challenges facing the world house, in which we live, how do we put things right? How do we create a world arc built on unity and strengthened by respect and deeper mutual connection?
If civilization is to progress we need to think globally and act locally. When we use the term smart power it is not solely about government acting – it is about citizens acting. Graduates we need you, your ideas, your passions, and your expertise as ambassadors for change in our communities here in the United States and around the world.
Sitting in a dorm room or at home, with your laptops connected to the web, each and every one of you, including parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, can start, join, and participate in campaigns and the social movements of our time.
We saw the power of citizen action following the earthquake in Haiti when millions of Americans, including individuals in this room, responded generously to one of the worst natural disasters in modern times, by providing donations and support to the Haitian people.
This is the American way, when we lead by example, when we lead by taking action in times of tragedy and when we choose to lift up the needy instead of push them down.
Thinking globally and acting locally is not just a slogan it requires action, it requires energy, it requires commitment to the betterment of the world.
At Albany State University you are taught to think globally and act locally – to put things right -- by giving back to the community you live in, by participating in public service, by serving as a big brother or big sister or a mentor.
You understand completely what President Obama’s meant when he said, “What happens to the hope of a single child -- anywhere -- can enrich our world, or impoverish it.” This maxim rings true whether the child is in Free Town, Sierra Leone, Dhaka, Bangladesh or here in Albany, Georgia.
Last September, Albany State University held Good Energy Day. The principle guiding this day was to “live simply so that others may simply live.” One of the comments posted on the Good Energy Day blog page, said, “I am looking forward to Good Energy Day! This is the opportunity for everyone to experience the joy of making a difference by connecting with one another and bridging the gap. Good energy is a big part of making this world a better place.”
No generation is more prepared to make this world a better place in the 21st century – than you. Sociologist and pundits and others have labeled you Generation Y, the Millenials or Generation Next. However I believe you are Generation Now.
Your generation is better educated and has unique talents shaped by the technological revolution, which continues to unfold. As the inventers, creators and proponents of social networking, internet activism – you are refueling and creating new forms and platforms for civic engagement and grassroots movements, not only in the United States but across the world.
From organizing fundraisers for Haiti through Facebook to Iranian youths’ Twitter revolution last June, to students across the globe using text messaging to organize political rallies – Generation Now is reshaping the world we live in tweet by tweet, text message by text message.
So, graduates, you have an historic opportunity to make the change you want – the change you seek. While the times that you are graduating in are difficult, and the road ahead is uncertain – you have never been more prepared and ready to succeed.
Generation Now this is your opportunity to create your own arc of history. To take bold action and make certain that the arc of the moral universe keeps bending towards justice and peace.
Congratulations, good luck and god-speed.